History

Thomas Watson Sidwell opened Friends’ Select School (as Sidwell Friends was then known) in 1883 as an initiative in co-ed, urban day-school education. Sidwell, then 24 years old, had been a teacher at Baltimore Friends School, headed by the leading Quaker educator Eli Lamb. Lamb opened the way for Sidwell to begin a school in Washington by sponsoring authorization of the venture within the Baltimore Yearly Meeting. While the Alexandria Monthly and Baltimore Yearly Meetings offered some nominal assistance, the operation was a proprietary one from the beginning.

Sidwell’s school began with 18 students in rooms that were part of the Friends Meeting House located in the 1800 block of I Street NW. Just 20 years after Friends’ Select opened its doors, Sidwell’s School—with fully elaborated primary, intermediate, and high school departments—enrolled nearly 200 students. Several buildings, including one of the first gymnasiums to be built in Washington, were eventually added to the I Street campus.

The original campus on Eye Street, circa 1930s

For many decades, the School was simply known as "Friends."

During the 1885/86 school year, Frances Haldeman, a recent Vassar graduate, joined the growing faculty as a Greek, English, and history teacher. Sidwell married Haldeman in 1887 and also made her co-principal. The Sidwells continued to share the leadership of the School for the rest of their lives.

In 1906, the institution that Thomas Sidwell had presided over for 23 years began a series of name changes. Friends School, or simply Friends, came into currency over Friends’ Select. Later, it became known as Sidwells’ Friends School, the plural possessive emphasizing the co-principals’ joint interests.

The Sidwells embarked on a plan to transform the institution from an urban to a suburban school. In 1911, they purchased a Dutch colonial house and grounds at 3901 Wisconsin Avenue NW from the Washington School for Boys. While the property first served as the Sidwells’ private residence, it soon became the site of the I Street students’ athletic and recreational activities.

Thomas Sidwell and his wife, Frances Haldeman-Sidwell, operated the School together as co-principals for almost 50 years.

Students were bused to the Suburban Campus on Wisconsin Avenue for afternoon recreation.

By the mid-1920s, the Wisconsin Avenue campus was no longer used exclusively for recreation and sports. A new building called the Suburban School (housing primary grades) was constructed from timbers allegedly taken from Woodrow Wilson’s inaugural viewing stand. Other portions of the Friends School academic program also relocated from I Street to Wisconsin Avenue.

Frances Haldeman-Sidwell’s death in 1934 convinced Thomas Sidwell of the need to take action to secure the future of the School. With the 1934/35 school year, the Sidwell Friends School was incorporated as a nonprofit institution under a Board of Trustees. The board’s bylaws stipulated that a majority of its members must belong to the Religious Society of Friends. In addition, Sidwell named in his will a group of 24 veteran teachers, two grounds managers, and 11 servants among whom the value of the School’s property was to be divided if the School should fail. Despite the tough times of the Great Depression, the School survived.

When Sidwell died in 1936, the institution he had founded 53 years earlier was ready to be guided by the trustees and Headmaster Albert E. Rogers. Within two years, the I Street campus was sold to Doctors Hospital, and all operations were consolidated on Wisconsin Avenue.

Sidwell Friends benefited greatly from the District of Columbia’s dynamic growth during World War II. At that time, the School pioneered the development of a fifth- through eighth-grade Middle School that was among the first in the country. The School’s first building campaign led to the construction of a separate Middle School building in 1950. In 1955, the School sold playing fields on the west side of Wisconsin Avenue (where McLean Gardens, Fannie Mae, and 4000 Wisconsin now stand) to finance the purchase of an adjacent historic structure known as the Highlands. This building, constructed between 1817 and 1827, was soon renamed Zartman House in honor of Helen Zartman, a key aide to Thomas Sidwell.


Sidwell Friends continued to grow in the 1960s. The School purchased the Longfellow School for Boys in Bethesda, Maryland, and moved its primary grades to that location on Edgemoor Lane in time for the 1963/64 school year. The purchase of the Edgemoor Lane property for the Lower School was directly connected to the demolition of the Sidwells’s Dutch colonial, which was then being used for high school classes. To make room for the construction of a new, modern high school facility, the old Suburban School was razed and its primary age students moved to Bethesda. The Upper School building opened during the 1964/65 academic year.

In 2006, renovations and additions to the shell of the original 1950 Middle School signaled the beginning of an era of green architecture at Sidwell Friends. The newly renovated structure became the first LEED Platinum K–12 school building in the world because of its innovative green technologies. A LEED Gold Athletic Center opened in 2010, and a LEED Platinum Meeting House and Arts Center opened in 2011. Learn more about our green buildings.

School Archives

Photographs, publications, and artifacts document the history of Sidwell Friends since its founding in 1883.

Quaker Rare Book Collection

A special collection documenting Friends history and the development of Quaker philosophy and thought.

Explore the Archives in Our Classrooms